I went to a lecture by a sound recordist, not expecting anything weird, but my ears pricked up when he announced, ‘I’ve only once recorded something I couldn’t explain and I’m going to play it for you now.’
It was a recording of locomotives shunting in a Mexican railyard – until a woman’s agonised screams tore through the noise of engines. It was horrible, chilling, not least because her cries had a definite Hispanic accent. The recordist was open-minded and conceded that engine brakes may have caused the sound, but a Mexican colleague was convinced he had recorded the screams of a well-known local ghost .
The lecture set me thinking how a ‘voice’ is only a certain range of soundwaves. Any sound in that range will be a ‘voice’ even though there might be no human larynx making it but only (in this case) engine brakes. Does this rule out a ‘ghost’ as the cause? Or might it actually rule one in?
I saw on TV recently a well-known sceptic who explained many sightings of ghosts as dreams carried over into consciousness before we’ve properly woken up . How else does he suppose a ghost can manifest? I wondered. Perhaps the one thing everyone can agree on is that ghosts don’t have physical bodies, yet this often seems to be what sceptics demand before they will consider spirits ‘real’.
The paradox of spirit is that of course they don’t exist. Everything that exists has a material basis, yet this is precisely what a genuine spirit doesn’t have. Whereas sceptics look for the material in the supposedly spiritual, occultists take an opposite approach. Just watch a paranormal TV show such as Most Haunted and you’ll often see this in action: with their use of ouija boards, seances and vigils in dark and spooky places during which spirits are commanded to appear, these shows employ techniques that occultists have used for centuries as a reliable means to summon spirits.
A creaky floorboard is just a creaky floorboard, but when it occurs in response to a question asked out loud then it becomes a communication. Because ghosts and spirits are neither material nor alive, and therefore have neither minds nor bodies, it’s up to us to create the means and opportunity for them to appear, whether this is by providing a background noise of engine brakes, using a ouija board, or doing something more subtle – such as having a dream.
Many paranormal incidents are spontaneous and uninvited, but even so, there’s a sense that a spirit enters our perception through our minds. In a recently published account, a paranormal investigator described her sudden sighting of a ghostly man with a two-dimensional body flat against the wall, lacking a chin, hands and legs . Because no one else saw it, and such an object is physically impossible anyway, we might conclude it was a hallucination. Whereas a sceptic would seize upon this as an explanation that rules out the spiritual, I’d argue it was the hallucination in the investigator’s mind that enabled the spirit to appear.
That said, it’s important also for occultists to accept that these incidents are not ‘proof’ of the spiritual either. We can never have that, no matter how compelling our experience, because proof requires a basis in physical reality and whatever exists in this way ceases to be spirit.
Cases of poltergeists, in which there seems no current physical explanation for the phenomena, might give both sides pause for thought. But if the effects of poltergeists are physical then I’m willing to bet that the causes are physical too, albeit not yet understood. One day the sceptics may well find proof that poltergeist activity is not spiritual, but this wouldn’t necessarily rule out spirits using it as a means to manifest. We can never rule spirits in, however, without making them material.
The best evidence for the view that a poltergeist may be a means by which a spirit appears lies in how ghosts don’t always occur naturally but can be made.
For instance, in research conducted at Toronto University during the 1970s a group of students created a poltergeist named ‘Philip’ by making up a fictional identity for him and inviting him to communicate. In order to be sure that Philip was their own creation, and not the stray spirit of an actual dead person, they included intentional historical inaccuracies into his identity so that he could never have really existed. By meeting regularly, talking to Philip, and talking about him amongst themselves, eventually he began to respond. Knocking sounds were heard in answer to questions and other poltergeist activity was observed and recorded on film .
Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969). Creator of a famous 'tulpa'.
But this is nothing new. The methods and results of the Toronto researchers bring to mind the ancient Tibetan Buddhist concept of the tulpa (or thought-form). Alexandra David-Néel was the first to describe to a western audience how Tibetan lamas were able to create from the power of their concentration visible beings that behaved as if they were real. David-Néel performed the exercises and rituals herself and made a tulpa of her own, in the form of a fat and jolly monk. ‘There is nothing strange in the fact that I may have created my own hallucination,’ she wrote. ‘The interesting point is that in these cases of materialization, others see the thought-forms that have been created’ . Indeed, her monk became so vivid that eventually people around her began to see him too. However, she soon noticed that he was losing weight and often wore a sly, mocking expression. ‘He became a daynightmare,’ she wrote, and noted that it was no small effort to dismantle what had taken her such an effort to build.
Modern-day western magicians commonly make use of servitors. These are artificial spirits created to fulfil a specific task – a kind of scaled-down tulpa. Many magicians keep a small retinue of servitors which they call upon frequently to execute common tasks. Among mine, for instance, is one that can heal people from diseases; one that ensures my tarot readings are always accurate; and another that protects my home from intruders – a cheap alternative to a burglar alarm, and woe betide anyone who breaks in!
Because a servitor is bound to a specific function, there’s no need for them to look or behave realistically. Apart from a funny-sounding name or an odd-looking symbol, which simply provides the magician with something on which to focus his or her attention, there’s usually not a lot to see. Generally, a servitor manifests only through the results it produces. Bored at work one day, I made a servitor to provide some mischief around the office. The next day an annoying colleague’s computer mysteriously ‘blue screened’ and had to be trashed. This was a clear sign of the servitor’s presence, but I dismantled it soon afterwards anyway, before it could do any damage closer to home.
A servitor is to a poltergeist as a tulpa is to a ghost. The two former make their presence known through events and happenings; the two latter invest energy into a semblance of being. Servitors and poltergeists do, tulpas and ghosts are (or, at least, they try their best at seeming to be).
What all of them have in common is a process of coming to exist. The ghost appears as a visitor or interruption from a supposed ‘world of the dead’; the poltergeist as well, on occasion, yet more immediately it presents as a creature that exists in real-time and through real-world effects. The tulpa, like the ghost, is a simulacrum of a living being, but the interruption in this case is from internal reality into the external. The servitor is like the poltergeist in that it manifests through real-world effects, but, like the tulpa, its origins are human, not supernatural, rooted in the mind and will of a magician. Indeed, according to Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, the only difference between tulpas and servitors on the one hand and ghosts and poltergeists on the other is that the former manifest from the mind of a magician and the latter within the ‘One mind’, the Buddha mind, that all-encompassing semblance spun from the mind of the Divine that we call ‘reality’ .
In the case of tulpas and servitors, a little direct experience of magic will instruct us that it’s better not to assume they exist in the straightforward sense that the sceptics demand. The actions and effects of these entities only assume any meaning or status in the light of the concentration or will that we apply in order to bring them into being. For example: a computer ‘blue screening’ is just a random malfunction, unless we’ve exercised magick in order to transform this event into seeming something otherwise. And yet the servitor itself is not the blue screen, nor even the act of will whose intention it manifests. The servitor, because it is a spiritual entity, is nowhere to be found in the material world.
Ghosts and poltergeists are not willed by us. They are brought into reality not by our mind but through it. Our experience presents something, and through that experience spirits can realise themselves to the extent that they can appear to act or appear to be. Spirit therefore seems to have a route into experience not only through magick but also, sometimes, through physical reality, which might be regarded as the equivalent of magick at the level of the One mind.
VAXCHAM a simple servitor, designed to create mischief.
But, at both levels, spirit is equally elusive. Even where the physical soundwaves of engine brakes assume the same shape as those of a Hispanic woman screaming, this is not the sound of spirit itself. Whatever material or psychological traces appear can only be proof of something else entirely.
Spirit is never there. It can only be apprehended or willed into a process of becoming. And in the same instant that an actual effect or an experience arises from this process – that isn’t spirit.
 The lecture was by Chris Watson, part of the Festival of Science held at York in 2007. See my previous article, ‘Sound and Spirit’, in Alan Chapman & Duncan Barford, The Urn (Brighton: Heptarchia, 2009), p. 300. Pascal Wyse refers to Watson’s recording and the possibility of its having captured the sound of the folkloric ghost ‘La Llorona‘ in ‘A Boom on the Wild Side’, The Guardian G2 Magazine, 31st January 2007, p. 26.
 The sceptic was Richard Wiseman on Frank Skinner’s Opinionated, BBC2 TV broadcast, 30th April 2010.
 Steve Mera, ‘The Harris Haunting’, Paranormal, No. 45 (March 2010), p.28.
 Margaret Sparrow & Iris M. Owens, Conjuring Up Philip (Pocket Books, 1977).
 Alexandra David-Néel, With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet (London: Penguin, 1936), p.285.
 ‘The Tibetans call the One Mind’s concretized visualization the Khorva (Hkhorva), equivalent to the Sanskrit Sangsara‘. See W. Y. Evans-Wentz (ed.), The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation (London & New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 29.